The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Paging Steve Cook on Egypt's generals

I missed this post on the raids on US NGOs in Egypt earlier this month, on Steve Cook's revamped blog:

So what is going on here?  It is hard to tell exactly what strategy the military is pursuing.  It has long been the case that Egypt has demanded American aid on its terms alone. The military sees its aid not as a function of the generosity of the American taxpayer, but as its own money.  The officers argue—not in so many words—that the aid is a payoff for the peace treaty with Israel.  They also claim that the assistance cements a strategic relationship from which Washington benefits on manifold levels. Yet there is nothing in the Camp David Accords or the Egypt-Israel peace treaty that enjoins Washington to fund the Egyptian armed forces. And while the officers may be on firmer (not firm) ground to argue that Washington benefits from strategic ties with Egypt those benefits have diminished in the decades since these relations were established.

As a result, it seems remarkably shortsighted for the SCAF to provoke the ire of the Obama administration and the Congress whom the officers lobby furiously to ensure their annual aid package.  Then again, maybe it isn’t.  Perhaps the military’s strategy is as simple as snuffing out the demands for democratic change through brute force and the officers have calculated that putting an end to a democratic transition before it even began is worth whatever price they will have to pay in Washington.  Either way, in terms of U.S.-Egypt relations, going after the NGOs represents yet another step in the long goodbye between the two countries.

Some thoughts on this: 

  • The officers may be relying on having allies in the US, notably at CENTCOM and DoD, as well as the usual Congressional lobbyists who will defend them. Congress may huff and puff, but is the US foreign policy establisment really willing to engage with brinksmanship with Egypt over substantial issues? Or does it just want a face-saving out for continuing to engage with what increasingly seems to be a sham democratization process? 
  • The Israel lobby may also back the above, as long as it gets what it wants from Cairo.
  • On the question of military aid to Egypt, it is also a subsidy to the defense industry. It will have strong defenders in Congress and elsewhere.
  • The real question may be, will DC simply return to the old relationship that they had under Mubarak if Egypt continues on the downward slope it has gone on human rights? Thus far the US has been pretty quiet, with the transition as an excuse. What happens in a year if we see more of the same? Want to bet that they'll just go back to normal?
  • If the above is to be avoided, then it has to be CONDITIONALITY CONDITIONALITY CONDITIONALITY. And not just for the military aid – for everything. And why not move to that right now?

On another issue Cook recently raised – the possibility of granting SCAF members immunity – I agree that it can be a good idea, as distasteful as it might first seem.

If Egypt’s officers were guaranteed immunity, allowed to keep whatever ill-gotten gains they have, and  assured that civilianization of the political system is not tantamount to destroying the armed forces—a mistake the Turks seem to be making—the chances are better that the military will yield to civilian politicians and a more democratic order.  If the experience of Latin America can be any kind of guide, these guarantees and the traces of the previous authoritarian system that go with them will fade away as democratic practices and processes become institutionalized.

It is hardly perfect, but “democracy with guarantees” provides a potential way for improving the conditions for the emergence of a democratic Egypt.  The immunity issue is no doubt sensitive and upsetting to many Egyptians and I certainly sympathize, but there is a larger project at stake.  It would be unfortunate for the perfect—in this case prosecuting the officers responsible for the deaths of demonstrators—to be the enemy of the good.

But the other side of the bargain has to be that all SCAF members leave active service and go into retirement and that the next president gets to appoint the next heads of the various branches of the armed forces. Tantawi will probably go but in July the next defense minister should not be Sami Enan, who is complicit in all the crimes carried out since February 11 and over whom many questions hang (notably about his relationship with Gamal Mubarak over the last decade). This is the key thing to fight over: civilian control of the armed forces. That might be worth immunity.